‘When you go to the Temple, be on your guard. Go near so you can hear. The offering is more valuable than the sacrifice of fools, even if they are unaware of doing wrong,’ writes the wise Qohelet (Ecclesiastes 4:17 JB). Who knows what he meant when he originally wrote down his thoughts in that ancient scroll? But as with the rest of holy and divine scripture, the Lord knows what would be made of His words from the moment they were received by the Qahal, the Church, until the end of time. I find myself remembering this verse and applying it very often these days.
‘You can tell them by their fruits,’ says the Lord in the holy gospels. ‘Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?’ His metaphor (Matthew 7:15-20) shows how ridiculously easy it is, or should be, for the disciple to distinguish false prophets from true. For what is a prophet after all, but one who dares to speak in God’s name, claiming authority which can only be given by God, who also accompanies that authority by signs? What signs? There are many. Read the bible. ‘Signs and wonders’ are more than story-telling. Infallibly, Christ’s sheep know His voice.
Once upon a time we were hearers of a homily, given by a recent seminary graduate, which seemed to revolve around the idea that what we need to do is attend more religious services, and at those we do attend, to arrive on time and not leave before they’re finished. The rewards of this good behavior were amply held out to us, and also the reverse. Heaven isn’t gained by those who stay away, but those who come to church punctually and faithfully, will have their reward. Honestly, I’ve never doubted that, but it is a general truth that cannot be used to corral and regiment the unruly flock of Christ.
For we are unruly. We follow a Lord who, though He fulfilled every commandment was yet called a law-breaker. Indeed, He observed the faith festivals of the Jews because He was a Jew, but wherever He went He revealed the Reality underlying all religious observance. What Reality? Well, that He and the Father are One, and that if we have seen Him, Jesus Christ, we have seen the Father. He keeps telling us in the gospels that He is only saying and doing what He hears the Father saying and what He sees Him doing. ‘The disciple is not superior to his Teacher’ (Matthew 10:24). We are unruly.
For the following of the Lord Jesus Christ is not the road of rules, but His life revealed to us in the scriptures is the rule of the road.
Our seminarian piously recounted for us the story of a man of his acquaintance who was very holy—so holy in fact that, like the Theotokos and many other saints, he was vouchsafed the date of his repose. What made this man holy was his faithfulness and piety. He never missed a service at the seminary chapel, Sundays or weekdays. Never came late, but always early or on time. He prayed daily the Chairetismoi, the poem written by Romanos the Melodist to glorify the Mother of God. He had a spiritual father to whom he frequently confessed and to whose word he was obedient.
The reward of his piety was a vision of the Theotokos three days before his death, which he revealed to his spiritual father. His sacrifices had been accepted, he was told. He would enter paradise in three days. And true to her word, he reposed on the third day. Such are the blessed rewards granted to the saints of God.
I have no doubt the man was a saint. I also don’t believe that the preacher even told us a tenth part of the good that this man of faith carried out for God. I wonder what it was like to know him when he was still alive in the flesh. Did he share with the young men at seminary anything of his real life, that which lay as the foundation of the pious building that they could see? Probably not, for the saints are invisible in their comings and goings, their mercies and their acts of love, invisible to themselves as well as to others. He worshiped and loved ‘Panagia.’ I wondered, ‘Does the preacher know why?’
To hear his homily, one would gather that the highest form of devotion to God is religious activity, piling up divine liturgies, orthros and vesper and paráklisis services, placing oneself in the hands of a spiritual father—in short, becoming essentially a ‘white monastic,’ that is, to be living like a monk, but in the world, not within the monastery. I’m sorry but I don’t even remember what the gospel lesson was at that service. If he touched upon it in his homily, perhaps it was an exegetical opening for whatever else was on his mind to tell us. We all listened respectfully, as he concluded his story.
And I repeated to the man next to me in the pew who was looking a bit uncomfortable and squirming in his seat, ‘Christ’s sheep know His voice.’